Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

I’m about to promote some cookies.

We (my boyfriend and I) didn’t go to New Orleans this weekend, but a bunch of our friends went because one of these friends won the Tennessee Williams prize for fiction. Amy Hempel was the judge.  We would have liked to go but a) money and b) I had a paper and a presentation and a short story to write and another short story to revise and 40 papers to grade in two weeks. Plus, I’m writing a novel.  The paper is on The King and I, though, and I’m kind of excited about it.

So we stayed back and took care of people’s dogs.  I wrote stories and novel sections and watched the King and I and reread Orientalism and took notes. We took four dogs to the dog park.  As part of the pet-care-thank you, someone brought us back a box of these:

They are so, so good.  We devoured all six in two days.  Eating one of these cookies is like eating a slice of pecan pie. Really good pecan pie.  Do they sell these in North-Florida?  If so, I need to know where.


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… there has been a reluctance to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much,invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences.

Hayden White, The Historical Text as Literary Artifact

I’m in this class where we’re learning about theories for literary criticism.  Your Derridas and Foucaults and your Bakthins and your Marxes and your Judith Butlers and your Edward Saids… Hopefully you get the picture.  Like most writers who take the class, I find the stuff really interesting and irrelevant for craft.  But still really interesting. Last week we read New Historicist theory (or was it Cultural Studies? Blech) and I especially liked this guy, Hayden White, for figuring out, or being one of the first to write down the idea that history is not fact but narrative.  (Think: Michael Jackson’s HIStory.)

I’m not sure if other fiction writers out there face stuff like this, but once I told this woman that I was a writer and she said she’d like to read my work.  Then I told her I was a fiction writer and she said, sorrowfully, “I don’t read fiction.”


So then this dude comes along and says that history is put together in the same way one puts together a fictional narrative.  Makes sense.  I’d like to write more about this, connect it to how Jesus was a fiction writer if he really made up the parables, but I’m just going to throw the quote out there for now.

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I have had great success with both of these activities–success, as in, I really love them and my students seem to enjoy them too.


I got this from the writer/poet, Jim Heynen, when he taught a fiction sprint course I attended.  Jim is known for his teaching as well as his writing–if you ever get the chance to study with him, jump on it.

Okay, so his activity is so simple you’re just going to have to trust me on it: ask your students to take five minutes or so and list some crazy things they’ve experienced, heard, or read about.  I usually start with my own examples, like…

*When the guy in the Geppetto costume at Disney world silently asked me to share my Nerds (candy) with him through outrageous Disney costumed hand gestures

*Another student of mine said her father threw Tom Cruise into a dumpster when they were in high school.

You could spend an entire hour and fifteen minute class period trading these stories.  It’s one of the hardest things to cut off, because each story spurs the next.  Make sure you tell your students that it’s possible that you will steal one of their stories for your own work.  And also, optionally, if you are a good person, that they may steal one of yours.


I just came up with this today (on David Foster Wallace day, see below) and I wish I’d had more time for it because this, too, could take up a chunk of college time if you needed it to.  I asked the students to list, in five minutes (again), every single media story they can think of that happened in their lifetime.  These can include:

-natural disasters

-celebrity deaths



-political events

They can be local or global.  The only requirement is that they must have been covered by some kind of media.

After five minutes, we go through the class and each student reads their list.  Much like Boggle or Scattergories, if another student has written down the same event, both or all students must cross it out.   For instance, if you write down 9 /11 (especially if you play this right after you discussed David Foster Wallace’s essay about 9/11), you can be sure that you’ll have to cross it off because everyone else will have that one, too.

I am not a huge fan of playing games with my students–except I am.  I hate it when it feels like a baby shower game, and it’s always possible that pedagogical games will end up being like baby or wedding shower games, but this one, thank God, did not turn out that way.  I think it’s because people weren’t as interested in winning as they were just seeing if other people remembered what they remembered.  Okay, some students were interested in winning.  It was hard to keep them from going off and telling these media stories to each other, which I had to do because we were pressed for time.  This is why I wished I had given it at least 45 mins instead just a half hour.

As a writer who teaches, I love these activities because I hear a lot of crazy stories that I’ve either forgotten or haven’t heard in the first place, and I  can use them in my own writing.

For teachers who just teach–I think these are also great brainstorming exercises.  The students get exposed to a lot of good things to consider writing about.

For humans who don’t teach or write but who like to stay curious–I recommend finding a good group of people to play these games with, especially if you are in need of fascinating stories to keep your brain happy.

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I just played this video for my students while they free-wrote, responding to one of the two prompts:

1. Give a history of your life  by listing the different books, television shows, movies, songs, bands, or albums you were obsessed with at various ages.

2. Write what comes to mind when you hear this song.

I usually respond to the prompts along with my students and this time was no exception.  I chose the second one.  I’m writing and thinking, do my students know they are listening to a song about resurrection?  Does it at all ring true to them?  Do they yet know how much death is required of them if they want something good to come out of their lives?

I keep coming back to this song (the first time I heard it was in 2002, when I was roughly the same age as my students) because I find it to be a good reminder, true on so many levels–spiritually, materially.  Just today, I met with my professor about my thesis novel and we decided that it really needs to be told in third person limited.  Those who knew me know that I wrote a hundred pages in third limited, switched perspectives from a 30 year old woman to a 10 year old girl, and then switched to first person retrospective, looking back to when the narrator was a ten year old girl.  Each time I make one of these switches, it’s like I have to die to the book again and hope that it resurrects as something better.

The thing that this principle asks (you have to die if you want to be alive) is pretty simple:How much do you want it? How much do you want this book to be a good piece of Literature with a capital L?   How much do you want Life with a capital L?


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Remember: a novel is revealed in the process of writing it. Thinking, dreaming, mapping will not get a novel started. Writing gets a novel started.

~Barbara Shoup and Margaret Love-Denman, NOVEL WRITING, “The Book in the Mind”

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Writing Enhancers

Of course every writer is different and has their own tricks about what keeps them sitting in the chair (or in my case, on my bed or couch.  I’m not a chair writer, though my boyfriend is at this moment writing at his desk in his chair).  These are some things that have boosted my own writing practice.

1. My dog

I adopted a puppy last May from the shelter–something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and I’m almost thirty so I thought, hey–why not?  My reasons had nothing to do with writing.  My favorite characters growing up had dogs (Dorothy, Punky Brewster), and so when I was a kid, I always imagined I would have a dog one day.  After I adopted Woody (Guthrie), I was pleasantly surprised with how much he helps my writing.  First of all, I find writing to be pretty lonely.  I mean, I collaborate some but that initial draft puts me in solo-mode.  My dog is content to lay beside me as I type away (sometimes I toss his toy while I’m drafting, quickly typing the sentence down while he fetches it from across the room).  Seriously–an animal that just wants to be in the same room as you, no matter what you’re doing.  A huge writing plus, especially if you’re like me and function better when there are others around.

Because I’m a socialite, he also keeps me at home more, or cuts short my nights out with friends.  This is kind of a pain in the ass, but is invaluable for a writing practice.

Even better, maybe, is the fact that I have to take him for thirty minute walks every day.  During this thirty minutes I either: a) meditate by counting my steps or picking a color and acknowledge every time I see it; b) work out a problem in whatever I’m working on; or, c) listen to audiobooks on my ipod.  I’ve gotten so many audiobooks “read” this way.  Which leads me to my next writing enhancer:

2. Audiobooks

In the first workshop I took here at FSU, my professor made a point of saying that if we want to be writers, we have to understand that we’re entering a conversation that started centuries ago with the printing press.  I’m a teacher and a student alongside being a writer and audiobooks have been a fantastic way to hit my never-ending reading list.  I have an Audible membership, which lets me choose one book per month–I generally use it for contemporary novels and staying on top of what’s just been published, what just won the Pulitzer or National Book Award, and the latest from my favorite writers. When I want to catch up on all the old books I never read, like my Henry Jameses, Edith Whartons, or George Eliots, I download free books from Librivox.  The readers there are volunteer and therefore hit or miss, but generally good enough to keep a good story going.  I listen to books when I drive, when I walk around campus, and duh, when I walk my dog.

3. Podcasts

Michael Silverblatt conducts fantastic, 20 minute author interviews on Bookworm. The recent Joan Didion one killed me in the good kind of killing way.  The NPR triumvirate of Radiolab, This American Life, and Krista Tippett’s inspirational interviews at On Being have all regularly contributed ideas to my creativity bank.  Of course, there is always the Moth, the New Yorker Stories, and Selected Shorts–I’m not as devoted to these but put them on from time to time.

4. Morning Pages

Most writers have at some point or another come across Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and have heard of writing three shitty pages every morning as a meditative practice.  Now there is a website to help you do it: 750 words.  The idea is that you write 750 words per day, which comes to about the same length as a Cameron morning pages session.  The site sends you email reminders at the time of your choosing.  The most fun part of this website, though, is that it psychologically analyzes your daily entries.  Seriously, it tells you if you’re focuses more on the past, present, or future, if you’re obsessed with a certain family member.  It even tells you what the weather is like outside as you write.  I’ve just started using it but I’m having a blast with the entries.

So, writers–those are my enhancers.  What boosts your practice?

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Writing that novel feels essentially like this:  You have seen or felt or dreamed something that you can’t name, but you know you can’t live without.  You set off on a journey to find it.  There is no map; no one has ever been to this place.  You barely know the people you are traveling with–your characters–but you know that they are the only people who know the way.  You watch them, listen to them.  You follow along, putting down the words to mark the path they make.  It is a long journey, with many wrong turns and surprises.  Every day, or as often as you can, you go into the world of the novel.  Months pass.  Sometimes years.

~Barbara Shoup and Margaret Love-Denman, Introduction to NOVEL IDEAS

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